Beyond Jamaica: A look at the history of flags and national symbols


A Jamaican Germany?

Germans spent weeks talking about Jamaica – but most weren't referring to the Caribbean island nation. The flag's colors also represent the coalition Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (black) hoped to form with the Free Democrats (yellow) and the Greens; that didn't work out. The next flag might be a bit trickier to identify...


Red field, yellow dots

What does this flag represent: the soccer club Bayern Munich; the self-proclaimed autonomous district of Christiania; or the South Asian Kingdom of Bhutan?



This flag was designed by the inhabitants of the district of Christiania in the Danish capital, Copenhagen. In 1971, they occupied a former barracks and created an autonomous settlement. It's unclear what the symbols on the flag represent: freedom, equality and fraternity, or maybe just the three dots on the letter 'i' in the name?


Fern leaf, four stars

Where does this flag come from? Does it represent New Zealand or the Marshall Islands – or maybe somewhere else?


New Zealand (in an alternate future)

This flag was actually only a proposal for a new national banner for New Zealand, one of six voted on in 2015 and 2016. Some citizens have advocated for the removal of any traces of the former colonial power, Britain – even from the flag. But in the second referendum, 56.6 percent of New Zealanders rejected the fern and decided to keep the Union Jack in the flag's upper left quarter.


Black, red, gold

Which country is represented by this national flag: Germany, Belgium or Angola?



That one should have been easy for DW readers. The colors of the German federal flag are defined in the country's Basic Law. Although officially designated black, red and gold, a yellow tone is often used in practice. The colors were inspired by the uniforms of the German soldiers in the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century.


Once again: Black, red, gold

True, these are the colors of the German flag. But this time, another country had adopted the same color scheme. Which country is represented by this banner: Uganda, East Timor or Zimbabwe?



This flag belongs to the African nation of Uganda. Here, black symbolizes the people of Africa, yellow stands for the sun and red represents brotherhood. These are also the colors of the party that led the country to independence from British colonial rule. In the center of the flag struts the black crowned crane, Uganda's most important national symbol.


Orange, white and green

Can you name this flag's country? Is it the Ivory Coast, Ireland or India?



The flags of the Ivory Coast, Ireland and India all share the same three colors: orange, white and green. But this is India's national flag. The orange, or in this case saffron yellow, stands for courage, white represents peace and truth, and green stands for loyalty and chivalry. The charge in the middle of the flag is a wheel, symbolizing the teachings of Buddha.


Many colors, one star

Do you recognize this flag? Is it that of South Africa, South Sudan or Syria?


South Sudan

The flag flies over the world's youngest country, South Sudan, which declared its independence from Sudan in 2011. Currently, a civil war is raging along ethnic lines in the East African nation. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, and more than 4 million have fled. Despite large oil reserves, South Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world.


Field of blue, shining sun

To which country does this flag belong: the Pacific island state of Palau, Belarus or Kazakhstan?



The Kazakh flag features a flying steppe eagle and a bright yellow sun set in a field of sky blue, with typical Kazakh ornamentation. The banner was introduced after Kazakhstan broke off from the Soviet Union in 1992. Palau's flag is similar, consisting of a simple yellow circle on a light blue field. However, in that case the circle represents a full moon, and not the sun.


Red, blue and a constellation of stars

Do these stars remind you of anything? If yes, you might have a clue to guess the country for this flag. Is it Kosovo, Samoa or Burkina Faso?



The Southern Cross, a constellation only visible in the Southern Hemisphere, is featured on the flag of Samoa. The island state is located northeast of former colonial ruler New Zealand, which also features the stars on its flag. Samoa is the birthplace of Albert Wendt, the author and literary professor who has fought for the recognition of culture from the Pacific region.


Green, white, red – and a yellow star

Is this the flag of Burkina Faso? Maybe it's Ghana, or Suriname? All feature a star, but only one looks like this.



A golden star for a golden future? Suriname is located in South America, between Guyana, French Guiana and Brazil. Once a colony of the Netherlands, the official language is still Dutch. The country has been independent since 1975. Today, Suriname has an estimated population of around half a million people. So, how many flags were you able to correctly identify?

As Germany's talks to form a yellow-black-green government collapse, an alternative to the "Jamaican" coalition needs to be found. Take our quiz on flags and find out more about their symbolism with expert Peter Diem.

DW: You've written extensively on flags and national symbols. What are the origins of national flags?

Peter Diem: The flag is an ancient symbol, mainly related to war. From the beginning, they were used to symbolize different armies – early examples could be seen in China, Persia and the Bible. It wasn't until later, when ships began using flags, that these national banners began standing for peaceful communities and nations.

Are there different types of flags?

Medienwissenschaftler - Dr.jur. Peter Diem

'The flag can become an undemocratic symbol': Diem

A standard is carried. It's a piece of cloth attached to a pole, and is never replaced. When it's worn out, it goes to a museum or is burned. A flag, on the other hand, is hoisted on a flagpole with a rope and flutters in the wind. It's something that is used on a daily basis, which means it can easily be replaced by a new flag.

What is the world's oldest surviving flag?

The oldest flag which still exists is from Persia, and dates to the third millennium before Christ. It originated in the East Persian town of Khabis, and features two lions and the sun.

The lion and sun were Iran's state symbols until 1979, when the Islamic Republic introduced a new coat of arms consisting of four crescents and a sword.

Read more: New Zealanders vote no to flag change

What about a flag's colors? Is there a common meaning for each color, or is it interpreted differently in each country?

This is a question of tradition. The older the flags are, the fewer colors they have. The red-and-white bands of the Austrian flag, for example, date back to 1230. The red-and-white cross on the Danish flag is even older. As more nations were created, more colors were necessary.

But not all colors are used. Usually, a flag consists of one or more of the so-called basic colors –  yellow or gold, red and blue –  paired with black and white. Green came later, and today is often used in Muslim regions to symbolize the Prophet Muhammad.


Colorful shorthand for German coalitions

Coalitions are common under Germany's proportional representation system. To describe complex ballot outcomes, political pundits use colorful symbolism, often alluding to the flags of other nations. Coalition short-hand includes 'Jamaica,' 'Kenya,' and 'traffic light' coalitions.


'Jamaica' option - black, yellow and green

The three-way deal between the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, whose color is yellow will not be happening at national level after the FDP called off talks. The northern state of Schleswig-Holstein currently has a "Jamaica" government, as CDU premier Daniel Günther governs with the FDP and the Greens.


Black-red coalition

Conservative black combined with transformative red is the color code when the Christian Democrats govern in a grand coalition with the Social Democrats. Yellow on these billboards alludes to Germany's tricolor flag of black, red and gold. Black tops the flag, signifying Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust.


'Pizza Connection' in Bonn, before parliament moved to Berlin

When Bonn was still Germany's capital, individual conservatives and Greens met from 1995 in its suburban Italian Sassella restaurant. Since then, the 'Pizza Connection' has become code for speculation over further links. At regional level, in Hesse's Wiesbaden assembly, Merkel's CDU and Greens have governed together since 2014. Baden-Württemburg's Greens-CDU coalition has governed since 2016.


Another untried combination: Black, red, green, symbolized by Kenya's flag

So far, a 'Kenyan' coalition has only emerged once at regional state level - last year in Saxony-Anhalt, when the SPD's vote collapsed, and the AfD took a quarter of the votes. Premier Reiner Haseloff of Merkel's conservatives forged a coalition comprising his conservative CDU, the battered SPD and the region's Greens.


'Traffic light' coalition

The market-oriented liberal FDP, whose color is yellow, has in the past generally ruled out federal coalitions sandwiched between the Social Democrats, whose color is red, and the Greens. A current example is Rhineland Palatinate's three-way regional state coalition based in Mainz and headed by Social Democrat Malu Dreyer.


Center-left combinations in three eastern states

Red-red-green coalitions exist in two German regions: since last September in Berlin city state and since 2014 in Thuringia. It's Erfurt-based government is headed by Left party premier Bodo Ramelow, seen signing (third from left). Berlin's three-way mix is headed by Social Democrat Michael Müller. Brandenburg has a two-way coalition, comprising the Social Democrats and the Left party.

And the meaning behind the colors?

Color symbolism is a science in its own right. But it is certainly correct to point out that red often relates to blood, blue with sky and sea, green with forests and meadows, black with death and white with innocence. These are ancient symbols. Red is an especially evocative color and, of course, a symbol of revolution and love.

When it comes to younger countries, who is actually designing the flags?

Usually, it's the result of a design bid, or a competition. If a new nation is looking for a flag, then it has to look at all the existing flags to avoid duplicating a color combination. Then it's probably up to advertising professionals, graphic designers and historians to come up with the new national symbol.

Read more: Trump supporters tricked into waving Russian flags at CPAC

In contrast to most nations, Austria and Germany distinguish between the national flag and the state flag. This dates from a very authoritarian past, when the state authorities had an empire and expressed its power with the coat of arms.

Personally, I believe that this idea has been surpassed with democracy. But nevertheless, it's a fact that there are today two flags in Germany and Austria: the state flag with the coat of arms in the center, and the national flag.

Nach Attentaten von Paris Deutscher Bundestag EU Flaggen

The German flag, tainted by Nazism, often brings up mixed feelings

These are also countries which have had a somewhat difficult relationship with the flag.

If used in an ultranationalist manner, the flag can become an undemocratic symbol. Due to the overwhelming propagandistic use and abuse of the flag during the Nazi era, today there remains a certain reserve in Germany and Austria when it comes to displaying the flag.

It's quite different, for example, in the US. People often experience a strong emotional bond when flags are displayed, and so they should be used with caution.

Read more: Flawed stars on Chinese flags at Olympics causes a stir

Peter Diem is a media scholar and co-editor of the Austria Forum, an information portal on Austria. He is the author of the book "Die Symbole Österreichs. Zeit und Geschichte in Zeichen" (The Symbols of Austria. Time and History in Signs).